By Rachel Wilson Political Reporter
The current cuts to the public sector look set to impact on women the hardest. Women make up the majority of public sector workers and cuts to the sector has pushed women’s unemployment up over the past few years. Women make up 65% of the public sector workforce in the UK and the latest figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility estimate that 929,000 jobs will be lost in the public sector by 2018.
Over the past 40 years there has been a rise in the percentage of women in employment and a fall in the percentage of men. One factor for this is the rise of the service sector and decline of the manufacturing sector beginning in the 1960s. However, an employment gap still remains; 77% of men are employed compared to 67% of women.
Nationally, women’s unemployment has been over one million since 2010.
The Fawcett Society has highlighted that women are being hit hardest by cuts to public sector jobs, wages and pensions.
Furthermore, due to benefit changes single parents, the majority of who are women, are being required to seek work once their youngest child is 5 years old, known as ‘lone parent conditionality’, and are therefore classed as unemployed rather than inactive.
The increase from 16 to 24 hours as the benchmark for claiming Tax Credits is seriously threatening women on three fronts; employers do not have the extra hours to give them, their family circumstances do not allow them to increase their hours and the additional cost of childcare makes it impossible to continue to work if they lose their tax credit.
The Coalition Government’s growth policy focuses on increasing the number of private sector jobs, particularly in the science, engineering and technology sectors, where women are underrepresented, and to reduce the number of public sector jobs, where women make up the majority of the workforce.
Moving from public to private employment may mean that women lose out due to the higher gender pay gap, which is currently 24% in the private sector compared to 17% in the public sector.
Barriers to private sector employment for women include limited flexible work opportunities such as flexitime, term time working and job shares. Although there is a statutory ‘Right to Request’, employers are allowed to turn down requests for a range of business reasons.
Women continue to face considerable barriers to setting up their own businesses including difficulties in accessing finance, a lack of confidence and issues with childcare.
Women’s income is vital for families and the latest available data shows a woman’s income makes up a third of family income on average and in just over a fifth of couples, women’s incomes accounts for half of family income. More families will therefore are relying on a woman’s wage.
According to research by the Resolution Foundation, women in the UK are also more likely than in the five countries with the highest rates of female employment to switch to part-time work once they have children.
Women who switch to part-time employment tend to move down the occupational ladder into lower skilled and lower paid jobs and struggle to move between full and part-time employment as their family situation changes. The high cost of childcare in the UK has been identified as one of the reasons for larger numbers of women working part-time than in other developed countries.
The Fawcett Society has identified several aspects of women’s life that highlights the risk that women are bearing the burden of the recession. These include:
- Women experience pregnancy and maternity discrimination. New mothers fear losing their job and maternity leave is unaffordable to many.
- Women are more likely to work part-time and in vulnerable employment. 5.7 million women compared to 1.8 million men are in part time employment.
- Women are more likely to be low paid. The UK now has one of the worst pay gaps in the EU. The TUC estimates that 29% of women compared to 16% of men are in low paid work.
- Women’s employment decisions are more directly affected by childcare costs.
For women in a couple on a low to modest income, a critical factor affecting their decision to return to work will be whether their partner is in work. Tax credits are assessed according to family income, with the result that it often does not pay for a second earner to enter the labour market.
- Ethnic minority women are doubly disadvantaged in the labour market. The employment rate among ethnic minority women is lower than that of ethnic minority men and white women, currently standing at 52.8%.
- Women are more likely to head lone parent households. As 90% of lone parents, lone mothers are most likely to experience the challenges of combining employment with sole or primary responsibility for children.
Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that some women who work part-time are under-employed and that there is a need for a growth in high-quality, part-time jobs. This could help tackle in-work poverty along with encouraging women back into the jobs market. There is currently a strong correlation between part-time work and low pay. According to a survey conducted between the Resolution Foundation and Netmums, 44% of respondents said that they had taken a lower skilled job because they were working part-time.
The proportion of women part-time workers who are working part time because they cannot find a full time job is around 13% – up from around 7% in the months preceding the 2008 recession.
The Government plans to introduce a new system of flexible parental leave from 2015 and to extend the right to request flexible working. It is important that both fathers as well as mothers can help to balance work and family life.
The high cost of childcare in the UK has been identified as one of the reasons for larger numbers of women working part-time than in other developed countries.
Some argue the case for universal childcare based on a ‘Nordic’ model which involves generous, well-paid parental leave shared between both parents.
It is argued that this model would support family employment, gender equality and child development and reduce child poverty. Scandinavian countries have some of the highest employment rates for women (particularly mothers) in the advanced economies, low rates of child poverty as there are more dual-earner households and high quality childcare which supports child development.
What is clear is that women make up a vital part of the workforce and if they are consistently underpaid, underemployed or out of work the whole of society will ultimately lose out.